A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The NYIOPs (and why you should always check what’s actually included in the price)

If you haven’t done any yet, let me be the first to warn you - auditions abroad are expensive. Cheap flights are all well and good, but auditions tend to come up at short notice, so you’re unlikely to get the best rates, plus the flight cost is the least of your problems. There’s getting to/from the airports for a start, and once you’ve auditioned straight off a red-eye Ryanair flight, you may well agree with me and say ‘never again’. For the sake of not having to perform on little sleep and having travelled for many hours, you’ll decide to arrive the night before whenever possible, adding a hotel stay to your bill. For a continental audition, travelling from the UK, you’re probably looking at £200 a pop, or so.

Mind you, it could be worse. You could be American ;) The prospect of an ‘audition tour’ of Europe has been a standard practice of US singers wanting to try their luck in a different job market. This is where one man had a business idea and started the NYIOP auditions. Das konzept was simple - reverse the regular practice of singers travelling to casting agents. Get the agents to come to where the singers are based in order to hear them. Initially the project started in New York, hence the name, but after some teething problems and with a rather divisive reputation, over the years it has expanded and holds auditions all over the world. I recently attended one such session, hence me writing about it. I’ll try to stick to the facts, but inevitably some impressions may creep in... I’m only human, after all.

In theory it all looks reasonable. The cost of the London session I attended was around £230 (you have to pay in US $) and NYIOP posted a list of 9 opera houses who were sending their representatives, most of them from continental Europe, one from the US, none of the local UK houses. £230 is a lot cheaper than 9x£200, so it sounds like a bargain... well, it sounds reasonable. It’s still a lot of money for a 10min slot, and over 3 days there would be a lot of singers paying more than enough to put up those 9 representatives, plus the NYIOP staff. But I guess there’s venue hire, a pianist, etc, and it is a business after all. Fine, let’s call it reasonable for the opportunity it offers. There are also a few artist management agencies coming, which is great, if you’re into that sort of thing ;)

Did I say pianist? Sorry, no. A week before the audition we get a very comprehensive email describing the procedure, what we need to bring, etc. This includes an instruction to bring £25 in cash for the pianist, even if you don’t plan on using the player provided. Hmmm... 10 minute slots (that’s £150/h for 3 full days of work)... no rehearsal time... ok... it’s not like we have a choice now, is it? I’ve saved that email in lieu of a receipt/invoice, as none was given, by the way.

The day itself ran very smoothly, the steward was very courteous and calming, the pianist played very well, there was a warm-up room, and the rather large panel all seemed to be there. Well, the numbers seemed to add up. Great, singing done, go home, wait for an email with the contact list of the casting representatives who came.

Ok, it’s not a contact list. It’s a list of names (about half of them with spelling mistakes) but no email addresses, just the name of the company they were representing. ‘Representing’ is a very flexible word, isn’t it? Suspicions arise when you see the 6 German houses are represented by 3 people, 2 each. These people aren’t all that easy/possible to find on the websites of said houses, either. A friend telling me that their German agent doesn’t rate any of them as people with the power to employ anyone conjures up the word ‘consultant’ in my mind. Well, if they can’t get you a job (I’ll come back to this working theory in a moment, because there is some evidence to the contrary), maybe they can get you an audition... but surely that’s achievable without this whole palaver? In any case, when I see 6 opera houses on a list, naive wide-eyed youth that I am, for some reason I imagine 6 people turning up, potentially with their assistants. No? Fine, that was never guaranteed in the small print (actually, nothing was guaranteed). 

What about the other 3 houses? Well, one disappeared from the list. The list being accurate was never guaranteed either. One was there and was definitely the head casting honcho (full marks!). One came and left after lunch on the first day... of three... and that was the American one. Despite the NYIOP website FAQ specifically stating that representatives are expected to stay for the entire 3-day session, as part of their deal with the organiser (who pays for their flights, accommodation, etc). It’s in the FAQ, it’s not in the small print of the ‘contract’ you get when you pay your fee. 

So that’s 4 casting people (including consultants), or 5 if you sang on the first half-day, no email addresses, plus the agents who came (not all the ones advertised turned up though), again with no emails. Go go gadget search engine! I’ve stalked enough people online to only waste an hour or so to get email addresses for everyone. They aren’t that well hidden, so why not save us poor singers (or our agents) some grief? Or at least spell the people’s names correctly, rather than make poor Google’s life harder than necessary... 

Can you tell I wasn’t all that impressed? It’s not that I disapprove of the concept, quite the contrary - it’s sound! It’s a great idea and I’m happy for someone to make money out of facilitating these kinds of auditions. It can’t be easy convincing opera companies to send their representatives, ensure they stay for the whole thing, and to coordinate it all. All power to David Blackburn for putting these things on at all! And there are testimonials from people who have gotten jobs out of these things, including proper fest contracts. I’m not sure if that involved follow-up auditions or not, as I haven’t met these people... but we do have mutual friends ;) and I’m looking forward to anyone with experiences of success stemming from NYIOPs sharing their stories in the comments section. For my part, though it’s early days, there has been some feedback about my audition, which is always a gift.

But getting the names of the panel members wrong in the ‘contact sheet’ seems a bit sloppy. Not including the pianist’s remuneration in the original fee seems a bit cheeky. 3 gentlemen representing 6 opera houses between them seems like it could have been made clear earlier (I would have liked the chance to find out if that’s just how it’s done in Germany... hint - it is, but not quite). Panel members leaving or just not turning up seems like it shouldn’t be a thing.

All in all, I applaud the idea, but sigh in exasperation at the execution. As a paying customer, I expected more. Not a job, that’s down to my singing! But I didn’t feel like I got what I thought I was paying for. I personally think the organisers need to either tone down the blurb, or deliver on it better.




I reserve the right to edit this post as and when I hear back from people whose experience of the NYIOPs is different.

10 comments:

  1. I've done two of these: an opera one in London a couple of years ago and the recent "Baroque" one in Karlsruhe.

    The opera one was slightly nerve-wracking as it was the first "proper" audition I'd done as a new-ish bass, even though I've been singing professionally as a baritone for a long time. I forget exactly who was in the room other than David and an agent I know personally (who I have done a few oratorio gigs for over the years) but there weren't many, maybe 6 or 7. ENO (who I REALLY wanted to be heard by) had left earlier. I asked each of those present for feedback but only received it from the agent I know (who was supportive but not that encouraging) and an Italian gentleman who said nice things but was "unsure" as to whether my voice would carry in his theatre (there's only one way to find out I thought, but nothing transpired). I was rather non-plussed by the overall experience but was glad that I'd put myself under the pressure to see whether the new voice would hold up. Would I do that one again? I'm not sure.

    Move on to the baroque one last week. This trip cost me a great deal more than your estimate. Because of the venue, flights dictated that I had to go to Stuttgart the night before and get the train over on the day. If you include coaching and all the sundries (eg paying €25 cash for the pianist - who I know and is excellent), I estimate that the cost is somewhere between £500 - £600 GBP. The audition room was huge (in stark contrast to the London opera venue - see above) but extraordinarily dry. There were about ten people present and ... I sang well. Result? Nothing so far. I too have received a list of names to research and email but the main bone of contention for me was that the 'ten minute slots' from the website application form were actually only FIVE minute slots, having spoken to the other singers waiting to warm up. An American tenor, a few singers before me, sang solidly for twenty minutes (two da capo arias and they heard everything) and they chatted with him too, he said, but subsequent singers were far from as lucky and I'm pretty sure that they would have known his quality within twenty bars. Don't misunderstand me, this guy is obviously excellent but that seemed unfair to the others around him as the girl before me seemed to come out very quickly indeed. Strict instructions were given that our first piece should be less than five minutes long! I suppose that I should count myself lucky to have got as far as the da capo in my second piece before they stopped me but my ten minutes were probably only about seven I am guessing. Maybe that's all I was worth?!

    I am going to pursue the feedback but there is a great part of me that feels that, like you imply, this is not necessarily the great opportunity that it is made out to be. If it works for you congratulations but, having personally organised hundreds of auditions in the admin side of my life over the years, I feel that the field should be a little more level for everyone to get the same potential benefit. I will certainly keep my eye on their website for announcements of the jobs that have been secured:

    "We heard an amazing number of very good singers and already know of several offers that were made even before the auditions finished."

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  2. Hi there Gents - I am David Blackburn, as referenced above. I applaud and encourage your sharing of your experiences and I do try to follow on these things posted so I can learn from them and constantly try to make the experience better for all. (continued...)

    I would like to first say thank you for the clear and honest evaluations of your experiences - many times the things that people write directly to me are NOT so direct and honest, as there is this horrible feeling that anyone on my side of the business can wield some mystic power to hurt those who are honest. Anyone who knows me - and I do mean pretty much anyone - knows that I am for sure not that type of person. I am genuinely trying to do good for people and be a force of light in this business, as hard as that is sometimes and despite the fact that I get called all sorts of things on a regular basis.

    So - both of you (and yes, I know who you are and respect your anonymity here) - thank you. However, do feel free to write me emails at david.blackburn@me.com anytime you want if you want to follow up. I will take careful note of all that you write and make the appropriate changes when possible and by this I hope all singers in the future have better experiences.

    I would like to at least reply to a couple things you write here so that you have a different view of them than you can possible have without sitting where we sit, and so that you gain a window into why certain things are done certain ways.

    Pianists - we simply do not ever pay for the pianist in any auditions we do. However, for as many sessions as we can, I try to use pianists that I KNOW are at a very high level for this type of audition - wide range of repertoire etc and lots of pressure. When we find one like that, they usually need some sort of guarantee of income and that is why we do that this way. As a point of reference, recently in another session we did NOT get someone local and left the singers to bring their own. The overall poor level of playing became a distraction and wore on the nerves of those listening so that, after a certain point, when certain pianists walked in, we became predisposed to think down on the singer due to the level of the pianist. You can imagine that no singer at any level would not want that to happen and that is why we made the decision to handle it that way. As a note, this IS listed on the About Us information online on the website. However, your point is taken that it should be noted more prominently and it will be in the future. Thank you.

    As to people being there etc re London - it is indeed a normal thing to list multiple theaters if they are cast by one person even - that is why everything is listed as theaters represented. This is the truth as they cast for multiple places. However, it is also my goal to never have more than 6 people in any auditions - otherwise "factions" form and the singers lose in those situations. So for London, there were actually confirmed 5 people / 8 theaters for the auditions plus several agencies - you are absolutely correct that one of those confirmed simply elected to stand up and leave after the morning session the first day. I found this to be rather outrageous and unprofessional behavior but, at the same time, I think it would have created a very toxic atmosphere should I have somehow forced him to remain - and that again would have hurt everyone. However, this has happened only one time in the 17 seasons I have been doing this.

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  3. As to the comments from your colleague below - the auditions are scheduled in 10 minute intervals - as are almost all auditions in the world. This is rather a standard. The way all auditions work is that you come and present your first aria and the panel chooses anything else they wish to hear. Usually this winds up being around 10 minutes - sometimes a bit more and sometimes a bit less based on what you sing. If you sang a 2 minute audition and got the job, you would not care. Alternately, if you sang for 40 minutes and didn't get the job you would also be dissatisfied. But sometimes people stay in there a long time - this is 100% at the discretion of the panel listening, as it should be,

    The only reason you saw 5 minutes listed anywhere is a limitation in our online scheduling system - in the SYSTEM the auditions are listed as 5 minutes but they are scheduled in 10 minute intervals - I hope this makes that part clear.

    The reason everyone was told to bring pieces not more than 5-6 minutes long is because many people start with pieces that are 10-15-20 minutes long and this is not only annoying to all on the panel but don't help the singer either as we then don't want to hear anything else. We can usually hear in the first minute all we need to know to form a judgement and this is the sad fact of casting. This was especially important for the baroque auditions you can imagine as many of the da capo arias literally go on for 8-15 minutes.

    As an overall comment in response to the thoughts you expressed about level playing fields etc and all having a fair chance etc - I am sorry to have to be rather hard about this. You have chosen to enter the most subjected professional field in the world of being a performing artist. There simply is no level playing field and our business is not fair in any way - nor should it be - the people are interested selfishly in only the people they can cast and that is not fair or level at all sadly. The opportunities I present are true casting auditions. The casting directors are there to cast operas and they offer contracts based solely on their needs and the realistic fact is that 99% of the auditions heard net no offers - one person said to me many years ago that "if they were all good, we wouldn't need to hear auditions" and this is the truth.

    You come and present yourself and, if you fit the needs, either at that moment or when they remember you in the future, you get the job. Just because there is a fee associated with the opportunities I offer, this does not change that it is a casting audition and that is how it is operated. In this day and age of the opera business, there are ever fewer opportunities to be heard live, be considered if you are not a household name, show your new repertoire etc - I take great pride in the fact that I work very hard to create and maintain these opportunities for singers who many times do not have other chances to present themselves. I believe that anyone should get at least a chance to be heard - this is how people are discovered or rediscovered. I have MANY stories about people being rebound or launched from my projects and they make me very happy to remember. (continued...)

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  4. Now - yes, I spelled one man's name wrong and didn't even notice until I read this - I am very sorry - and oddly he is one of my very close personal friends - but if you look at the two different GH names on that one sheet, I simply got confused and I am sorry. I actually abhor spelling mistakes and I am very sorry. Mea culpa.

    And finally - I do not give the direct email addresses on the contact sheets at the very specific request of those attending the auditions. MANY of those who attend simply find it unmanageable to have hundreds of requests for feedback in their email boxes the day after they return to their theaters after several days of auditions. They requested that and I found that at minimum adding the extra level of "research time and effort" between them and those who sang for them decreases this to an acceptable level.

    I am sorry for the lengthy reply to all of this but you both took your time to write so I felt it only honorable that I do the same. As I wrote above - I am always available via email for anyone and I try to reply as best as my time and family-life allow. Thank you both again very much for writing and I hope you found the opportunities useful in same ways and I would love to meet again in the future somehow - if you ever need info from me, feel free to write,

    In bocca al lupo,

    Dave

    david.blackburn@me.com

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